Tough day for 3 American teens at French Open

Summing up a 6-2, 6-0 loss to defending champion Francesca
Schiavone at the French Open, Melanie Oudin of Marietta, Ga., said
Monday: ”Basically, I pretty much got a clay-court lesson.”

If the U.S. Tennis Association gets its way, more and more young
Americans will be schooled closer to home in the ways of playing on
clay.

That’s why a significant junior tournament in Florida is
switching from hard to clay courts, and why four clay courts were
installed last year at the USTA training center where the U.S. Open
is held in New York. The idea is not simply to help kids have more
success on the slow surface used at Roland Garros, but also to
improve their games on faster hard or grass courts.

”I don’t get to play on clay, and she’s grown up on clay,”
Oudin said after facing the 30-year-old Schiavone, an Italian. ”I
mean, she’s a lot older than me, like 10 years, 12 years. That
definitely helps for experience for her. But also, I mean, she’s
just really, really good on the clay.”

Oudin – best known to date for her surprising, upset-filled run
to the 2009 U.S. Open quarterfinals – was one of three 19-year-old
women from the United States in first-round action at the French
Open on Monday.

As if to highlight the issue of the future of U.S. tennis on
clay, all three met older opponents from Europe, and all three
lost, none more painfully than Christina McHale of Englewood
Cliffs, N.J. She led 5-0 in the third set but let that slip away
and was beaten 6-7 (4), 6-2, 9-7 by Sara Errani, a 24-year-old from
Italy.

”I just wasn’t making my shots anymore, and I panicked, and she
started feeding off of that,” McHale said, fighting tears, ”and
before I knew it, it was 5-all.”

CoCo Vandeweghe of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., was eliminated 7-6
(5), 6-2 by 25th-seeded Maria Kirilenko, a 24-year-old from Russia.
It was the first time playing at Roland Garros for Vandeweghe, who
never entered the French Open junior tournament – and who said her
former coach dissuaded her from entering the U.S. junior
championships played on the surface.

”I never got to play on clay; I always wanted to,” said
Vandeweghe, the niece of former NBA All-Star and general manager
Kiki Vandeweghe. ”My game is pretty good for clay. I don’t mind
it. I can slide pretty well.”

The fourth American woman in action Monday, 36-year-old Jill
Craybas of Huntington Beach, Calif., advanced to the second round
by beating Eleni Daniilidou of Greece 6-3, 6-3.

Two U.S. men played, and 10th-seeded Mardy Fish of Tampa, Fla.,
defeated Ricardo Mello of Brazil 6-2, 6-7 (11), 6-2, 6-4, while
Alex Bogomolov Jr., of Miami, lost to Marcel Granollers of Spain
6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (6), 6-2.

There hasn’t been a U.S. man in the French Open quarterfinals
since Andre Agassi in 2003. There hasn’t been a U.S. woman other
than Serena or Venus Williams in the third round since 2006.

One prevailing theory is that Americans play far less on clay as
kids than players from some other parts of the world.

”We were talking about this the other day, a bunch of us: We
don’t know why there aren’t many clay courts in the States. … It
would be kind of good to get a variety, because you learn a lot
about your game on different surfaces,” Craybas said. ”It would
be good for kids to kind of play on all different surfaces as
they’re growing up, but it’s tough for Americans, because we don’t
have a lot of clay courts available. So, I mean, we’re always
practicing on hard courts when we’re younger.”

As general manager of player development for the USTA, former
U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe is a major proponent of
changing that. He wants youngsters from the country to train on
clay, as many Europeans and South Americans do.

That’s also why he wanted to shift this year’s Orange Bowl
International Tennis Championships from hard courts back to clay
this year.

”You learn how to use the court a lot better; you learn to move
a lot better; you learn to hit more balls and construct points,”
McEnroe said. ”It’s a lot easier to go from a background of
growing up on clay and adjusting your game to a faster surface than
it is to go vice versa.”

In addition to the four clay courts at the USTA Billie Jean King
Nationals Tennis Center, there are 14 at the USTA training center
in Boca Raton, Fla., and four at its center in Carson, Calif. Plus,
the USTA encourages the 20 privately owned clubs and programs that
serve as regional training centers elsewhere in the United States
to work with their top young players on clay as much as
possible.

”I definitely think it can’t hurt to practice on clay,” McHale
said. ”It helps with point construction, patience, and all of
that.”

The 22 courts at the main USTA centers are all green clay, which
is far more common than red in the U.S., primarily because upkeep
costs less. McEnroe said that if the green clay is maintained the
right way, it’s a ”very good simulation” of the red.

Oudin’s not so sure.

”It’s completely different. It’s nothing like here,” she said.
”Green clay courts, you can almost play on it like a hard court in
the States. It’s a lot faster; the ball doesn’t bounce as
high.”

Most of all, Oudin lamented her unlucky draw: She was forced to
face Schiavone, of all people, in the first round at Roland
Garros.

”Whenever I come to Europe and play the red clay, I always get
Spanish or Italian grinders. I can never get one that hits the ball
hard and flat,” Oudin said. ”So, I mean, I’ll be looking forward
to the grass-court season.”

When it comes to tennis, that’s become a familiar refrain for
Americans in Paris this time of year.

Howard Fendrich can be reached at
http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich